There’s no sign of the ratings juggernauts of entertainment TV losing any of their popularity. And buoyed up by that success, commissioners and producers are now on the hunt for the next big genre-busting hit. Jon Creamer reports
The explosion in big budget entertainment TV that kicked off several years ago seems to be a boom with no bust in sight.
Many of the huge Saturday night shows are now several years old and there’s no sign of audiences, or channels, tiring of them.
The X Factor reached its seventh season last year with over 16m viewers tuning in for the final, the last Strictly Come Dancing series picked up over 14m for its final show. Britain’s Got Talent reaches series five this spring, Dancing on Ice’s sixth season has just ended and Got to Dance on Sky 1 brought in double the slot average. And although Channel 5 has now stepped out of the game with entertainment fan Richard Woolfe off to pastures new and the Don’t Stop Believing experiment consigned to the graveyard, Channel 4 has emerged as a big new entertainment player since Justin Gorman took the head of entertainment job and got his hands on a pot of post Big Brother cash.
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
For all broadcasters, entertainment shows, and particularly the talent show juggernauts, just keep on rewarding them with huge ratings and returnable brands. Far from moving through a natural TV lifecycle that would have seen them wane in popularity after so long at the top, they seem to get bigger and bigger, “which goes to prove that the old school values of singing and dancing and performance and jeopardy and competition are still as valid now as they’ve always been,” says Nick Samwell-Smith, creative director of Total Wipeout producer Initial.
It also goes to prove that those same channels have had the foresight to constantly reinvent them while also constantly upping their production values. “It needs to feel familiar to the audience, but at the same time you need to move it forward,” says BBC controller of entertainment commissioning, Mark Linsey. “The shifts can be subtle but quite significant.”
And the door isn’t completely closed to new talent shows either. “When The X Factor or Idol juggernaut was a bit younger there might have been a feeling that you can’t pitch a singing show or a dancing show,” says Initial’s Samwell-Smith. “But you feel, in the current climate, that even though those massive shows are still delivering huge numbers, if you get it right and have the right twists on it, there may well be room for more in that area.” Because it’s looked like the genre has reached saturation point before, and then one more talent show comes along and turns into a hit. “I remember at ITV thinking there couldn't possibly be another talent show and then Britain's Got Talent pops up, so you never say never,” says Sky One head of entertainment, Duncan Gray.
THE NEXT GENERATION
But for all channels, a new talent show would have to have some very original twists to it. “If it is a talent show the important thing is it has a real point of difference so we’re offering something that has a different flavour or attitude,” says BBC controller of entertainment commissioning, Mark Linsey. “That’s very key, not to ape something that already exists.”
“If we do it we’d have to invert it. It’s very difficult to go up against the wonderful X Factor. And our price point isn’t the same, so we would have to come at it from a very Channel 4 angle,” says Channel 4’s head of entertainment Justin Gorman. “We piloted something a while back and we’re still looking at how we touch in that area. It’s a tricky place to inhabit but I’d never say never because it obviously has a great audience but it’s tonally a tricky thing to achieve.”
Outside of the terrestrials, original commissions need to offer a point of difference, not a slightly less opulent copy, says UKTV’s commissioning editor for entertainment, Tess Cuming. “We tend to shy away from talent competitions. Our budgets are very healthy. They’re on a level with, if not more than, Channel 5, but our business model is based on something we can repeat to amortise costs.” And repeatability is not one of the major features of a talent show. “We don’t want to look like we’re aping the terrestrial channels and look like we’re doing a paler version. It’s difficult to sail into a similar area with a fraction of the budget.”
So the door may be open still at some broadcasters, but the idea would have to be very surprising to be welcomed in to the room. And with those ratings bankers still doing the business, the channels are on the lookout for the next generation of entertainment shows.
“I look at reality game shows and at the reality fusion going on in The Only Way is Essex and admire them and wonder what Sky’s bigger, better version would be,” says Sky One's Duncan Gray. “There are a couple of crossover genre shows that are just about to hit in the international marketplace that I’m very interested in. I’m very interested in the next generation of talk shows and who those performers may be, not in a pluggy way, but in a performance based way.”
BBC controller of entertainment commissioning, Mark Linsey, says the success of the big returning shows gives commissioners the leeway “to take risks and back producer’s hunches and try new things and new territories which we’ve got to do to move the genre on.”
Initial’s Samwell-Smith, whose new BBC1 show Don’t Scare the Hare features a four-foot tall animatronic hare, reckons the time is ripe to pitch the weird and wonderful “There’s room for coming up with an idea which is a bit out there, a bit mad. You can sometimes almost surprise a commissioner into being interested in your show. That it’s so left of field they can’t say no to it.”
For Channel 4’s head of entertainment Justin Gorman, “creating hybrids is a really interesting way of moving things forward - combining an event with a gamseshow with live show with a stripped thing with a studio thing attached to it – that sort of bonkers stuff as a starting point is good. It’s easy to get stuck with ‘that worked quite well, what can we do that’s a bit similar to that again’. If we’d done that there’s no way we would have done Ten O’clock Live or The Million Pound Drop.”
But just as broadcasters may be on the lookout for new forms and hybrids of existing formats, entertainment TV’s cyclical nature, and its willingness to dust off ideas from the past and give them a new shine, means it’s not always the brand new that’s given a chance. “We are looking at single player, high value, gameshows and quiz shows,” says Samwell-Smith of Endemol's development efforts. Could this be a new Who Wants to be a Millionaire? before the original show’s even left the airwaves?